Interview with Tom Holland, author of TOM WRIGHT AND THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH: A THEOLOGICAL EVALUATION

Published on October 30, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Apiary Publishing, 2017 | 200 pages

Very few writers attain the popularity and influence of N.T. Wright, and yet with the various areas of concern that have surrounded him it was inevitable that someone would write to provide an overall critique.

Tom Holland is the most recent and I think the most comprehensive in his overall evaluation of Wright’s work.

I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and I’m talking today with Dr. Holland about his new book, Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation. Dr. Holland is Senior Research Fellow of Union School of Theology, and we’re very pleased to talk to him about his new work.

Tom, welcome – great to have you with us!

Tom Holland:
Many thanks. Yes, good to be with you.

 

Zaspel:
You have had contact with Tom Wright for quite some time, is that right?

Holland:
Yes. I think, perhaps 40 years, off and on. I was a young pastor struggling with some unofficial research that came up as a result of preaching in Romans and I wrote an article and sent it to my instructor in London School of Theology. It was in the London Bible College. He read it and said you ought to speak to a young fellow called Tom Wright who is in Oxford doing a PhD. I didn’t see him immediately, but he moved over in the area where I lived which was near Cambridge and we made contact and I went to see him, spent the morning with him, and he was very encouraging and offered to supervise me on a Masters’ Degree, which for several reasons I didn’t accept. I was working in a bigger field than he would have required me to work in.

 

Zaspel:
You have been working as a scholar for over 40 years, and your book offers a paradigm that is different from Wright’s work, and it is quite compelling. Who have been some of your own theological influences?

Holland:
Well, the last thing I want to do is to sound arrogant, but there was no one. What happened was, I struggled with interpreting Romans 6, and in reading all the commentators, almost every one of them just were saying this isn’t what Paul actually meant, he was meaning to say this. And one or two actually used those sort of words, but most of them followed that pattern even though they didn’t verbalize it. Even good, evangelical men. And that left me frustrated, confused. I had done a B.D. in my undergraduate class, and in my B.D. I had done Romans in Greek, and I still, even though I had done that course, didn’t feel I properly understood Romans. And I finished at pushing all the commentaries away, because I had a sermon I was preparing, and I decided, well, to get into Paul’s mind, how do I do it? And the penny dropped that chapter 6 was coming out of chapter 5 and chapter 5 was totally a corporate argument about two communities, one in Christ, the other in Adam, and I wondered, well, could it be that chapter 6 continues that very same way of thinking? And I began to apply a corporate understanding and that corporate understanding just simply snowballed as things opened up which I had never seen before. And then I started going back and looking at individual writers. And they had, themselves, noticed things that I was discovering, they had seen them and written, but they hadn’t realized that what they were writing was actually part of an overall corporate understanding. That they were just noticing a particular corporateness of a verse or an expression, and what I was beginning to do is to see that this was a much bigger screen and that there was a whole narrative that was going at a corporate level. Out of that, it began to unroll. There were a wide range of people – T. W. Manson, who was a Cambridge scholar, said, about Paul, that Paul’s understanding of the body of sin is that man naturally belongs to the body of sin and every conversion is a loss for the body of sin and an addition to the body of Christ. He made that statement. Ridderbos said it similarly. Even Bultmann was saying something of the corporate nature of soma. They were all sort of walking around it, but not actually saying, well, if this is true, how does it affect the whole chapter? And I went from saying, if it’s true, and this is how the whole chapter is structured, how does Paul expect his readers to understand it? And it led me to say this must be the mindset of the early church. They must have been able to read into this what Paul was intending to say. After that I began to look and saw that this pattern was going on. I had a sabbatical in Cambridge and carried on with this research and I found that there was a now famous man, Rick Watts, who was doing his PhD and it was on New Exodus in Mark. I had never met Rick and I went up to him and said, “Rick, it’s lovely to hear that you’re doing this in Mark’s gospel – I’m doing it in Paul.” And Rick’s immediate response was, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, it’s not in Paul, it’s only in Mark.” (Both men laughing). Well, Rick has changed his view since those days, but that was his reaction. So that was how it just simply rolled out very naturally. I couldn’t say that somebody took me by the hand and led me through it; that’s not how it happened.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s explore that corporate emphasis in Paul a bit further. How is the corporate nature of Christianity, rather than the individual, important? How does this focus help us interpret Paul’s commands? Do we lose anything by shifting from an individual focus to a corporate focus?

Holland:
Well, first of all we do have to recognize that the very early Christians were Jewish and they didn’t see themselves as having broken off from Judaism. They were still within that, and so was Paul. He was just teaching the followers of Jesus. And we increasingly realize that Paul stayed within those very categories. He had a critique of aspects of Judaism as it developed and he was taking it back to the Old Testament and its meaning; but he was still very much an Old Testament scholar. And that was the early church’s natural way of reading and thinking. In fact, the letters, of course, were not distributed to individuals; they were taken to a church and read to the congregation, so even the reception, hearing the letters, was a corporate experience.

I do get challenged, “Aren’t you going to lose an awful lot?” Well, maybe a little, I don’t know. But what I’m saying is that if you’re reading it in the way that the original people read it and understood it, and it’s so rooted in the Old Testament that nobody would argue that that is the content of the Old Testament, it is all corporate with application to the individual, not individual with application to the corporate, it’s natural for it to. All I’m suggesting is that we actually recover that which was so natural.

How does it affect? Well, it certainly affected me in my thinking and in my preaching. I began to realize that the passages which I had used to bang people on the head in encouraging them to discipleship, actually that was not the right way of applying them, because the passages were written to the church, and it was an exhortation to the church to do things. Which actually lifted a huge burden because most of us know that we are weak in so many areas, and those exhortations seem to just simply drive us into a corner. But when you see that the church is being called to do this whole range of things, we look for the things that we are gifted to do. And it’s our responsibility to play our part in that exhortation. A number of people have come to me and said that when they realized that, it took a huge burden off their shoulders. And I think it’s true.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, let’s talk about your concerns regarding N.T. Wright. What are some of your major areas of concern with his work?

Holland:
Well, it’s not the fact that he follows a New Exodus framework. And I would just observe that he doesn’t see the continuity and that the New Exodus actually is a very powerful paradigm in which Paul is working. So, themes like sonship, giving of the Spirit, New Covenant, promise of the Gentiles coming in, New Creation – all these things are actually under the umbrella of the New Exodus. Wright has things that he says about these things, but there are gaps. That’s the first thing I’d say.

The other thing, which is more important to me, is that he is eclectic in the way he builds a narrative. And, for myself, I’ve not built a narrative, I’ve just simply heard what the Old Testament prophets promised and taken those to the New Testament and seen that that’s all that Paul and the apostles are talking about. They’re not building another narrative; that is the narrative. Tom, in his building of his narrative, he goes off to intertestamental literature and brings in material from those, goes off into Hellenism and says look, Paul tells us, “whatsoever things are lovely, beautiful, etc., if there is any virtue, think on these things,” and that actually is not a reference to the legitimacy of going into Greco-Roman culture and taking things out, it was actually an appeal for them to follow the behavior of the apostles and the leaders. He is saying, “whatever you see in us, all these things, if you see them, think on them, follow them, practice them.” So, Paul was not giving an invitation to go into Greek culture. Now, I have little doubt that he was aware of it, and of course, he is writing in Greek, and his forms of greeting, as has been pointed out, are Greek, but that is very different from saying that he uses these sources to build his theology. It’s very different.

 

Zaspel:
In your book you offer a strong warning against excessive dependence on intertestamental literature. What dangers do you see in this trend in biblical studies, and in Tom Wright in particular?

Holland:
Well, there’s not enough reflection on the fact that this material that has been so used, it was not Christian literature. And, in fact, it was very often the literature of their opponents. They will take a term and say this is how they used it, therefore that is how the Christian used it. Well, that just isn’t true, I mean even in a very simple example today, even within the Christian community there are words, key words, which we don’t use as the same. So, when a Presbyterian speaks of baptism, he has a whole set of ideas; when a Baptist speaks of baptism, he has a whole different set of ideas. So, there are such variations even within the Christian community it would be incredibly foolish to go to other communities which don’t share the same theological understanding and say this is how they used the word. The way that they are saying that the word is used is actually their own construct, it’s not how they used the word, it’s how they have determined the word is being used. So that’s brought back in to Christian understanding and it begins to shape it and, in some cases, actually takes over it.

I make an illustration in the book that if you can imagine a team of anthropologists going into an unreached tribe that are very primitive that are on the edge of the sea; they’ve cut themselves off from all other tribes and absolutely had nothing to do with them and are incredibly insulated. And this team of anthropologists get in and they are working with them and they observe a particular practice and one of the team says, “I think I know what they’re doing. I saw that in another tribe just a hundred miles away. What they’re doing is…” And the team leader says, “Hey, hang on, we don’t bring what other tribes are doing into this. If we do that, we’re not only imposing a meaning on them, but the presence of that meaning will affect the way that we understand so much more. We have to wait until we understand what they are thinking, what they are doing, what significance it has for them.” Now can you see the parallel? Go outside the Christian community and find out what other groups are doing and say, “Ah, they’re using the same term; there’s a parallel, almost as though the Christian community actually borrowed it from them.” That’s not the historical reality. There’s plenty of examples in history where that sort of mistake has been made. I mean, Bultmann was not obviously an example with his use of extra biblical material and it’s showing that the source that he used were much later that he thought they were. So, they borrowed from the Christians rather than the Christians borrowing from them.

 

Zaspel:
Are there areas of Christology with N.T. Wright that are of concern?

Holland:
There are; but in that, N. T. Wright has followed the flow of understanding which affects most evangelical thinkers and he’s built on that so in Colossians 1:15, Paul speaks of Christ being the firstborn of all creation. And you’ll find that there are a few exceptions who will say, “no, this is not speaking about wisdom.” You see, Philo had a term, protogonos, which meant elder brother. Paul uses the term prototokos, which means firstborn. It’s a particularly Jewish term, designating the one who is representing the family, who functioned as the family’s redeemer. So, Philo didn’t have that idea in his use, but what’s happened is it’s been flipped over into prototokos, seemed to be the same, and because Philo spoke of divine wisdom being the protogonos, it’s argued that that’s what Paul meant. Well, it’s mixing up etymologies and making a soup out of them which is really unfortunate. The whole passage is saturated with redemptive terms: “He has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness; He has brought us into the kingdom of his Son,” and so forth. Even the end of the hymn: “having reconciled all things together in heaven and in earth through his blood shed on the cross.” Now that terminology does not belong to wisdom and Hellenistic wisdom. But keeping to the fact that the hymn is soaked in Exodus material, and Wright admits that the beginning, verses 13 and 14 of the hymn is actually a new Exodus motif, he acknowledges that, but as soon as he hits 15 he takes over Philo’s meaning, and he brings Greek ideas into it. Now let me again emphasize that there are a few recognize that. Gordon Fee was one who recognized that. I’ve noticed that a few others have been more cautious in saying that that’s not fitting. When you go back to the Passover, which the Exodus obviously was the framework of, and you look at the night of the Passover, we focus on the death of the lamb, naturally, but the lamb was actually the substitute for the firstborn. If the lamb didn’t die, the firstborn was designated to die in the place of the family. And what Paul is doing, he’s taken that whole idea, and there’s a whole stream of material, or actually the Old Testament, that supports this, but he’s taken that particular term in saying Christ is not just anyone, He is the firstborn of all creation. His death redeems the whole of creation. And so, at the end of the hymn, “to reconcile all things unto Himself in heaven and earth through His blood shed on the cross,” supports that interpretation. Now Tom loses that because he stays with a Hellenistic interpretation of firstborn.

 

Zaspel:
That’s a big loss.

Holland:
I think so, because, although he has moved more in his recent book, The Day the Revolution Began, he’s moved much more to a Paschal interpretation of the death of Christ, he still misses an awful lot. And he’s missed the whole idea of the terminology of the Redeemer because, of course, the firstborn under Jewish law was the Redeemer. Now the interesting thing is that when we come into the New Testament, Christ is never called the Redeemer, never once. In the passages that we would expect him to be called the Redeemer, he’s called the Firstborn. The Redeemer never gave his life up for his family; that was not what he did; but the firstborn – that was his role.

 

Zaspel:
And what about the infamous area of concern – the doctrine of justification?

Holland:
Well, Tom has, as probably everybody knows, said that there is only one meaning for justification, and it is the declaration that one is within the covenant. Now, other people have done studies on this and he continues to say it, but it’s not his major theme now. It’s almost as though it’s become an accepted thing that the reformed people don’t agree with him but it’s now water under the bridge and he has a far greater acceptance, even though he holds this. So, he’s welcomed now into many institutions which 20 years ago felt very, very uncertain about being associated with him. He’s written some things like, The Death and the Resurrection of the Son of God, which have persuaded people of his orthodoxy and so on and he’s been welcomed.

But going back to the doctrine of justification. As I did my research, I found that Tom… I can’t say deliberately, but it’s such a coincidence that it seems more likely than accidentally… But he misses key passages that should be there within the discussion on justification. For example, Paul in Acts 14, preaching, says to the Jewish congregation that they need to believe in Christ that they might be justified by those things which the law cannot justify them. It’s just a very clear reformed presentation of the doctrine of justification, that’s what Paul is making. Now that verse is just not considered at all in any of his writings. He doesn’t consider at all Romans 5, which has the greatest concentration of justification terms – not mentioned at all! So, the whole of his argument is built upon a selection of texts, which he warns other people of, but he has fallen into the trap himself.

Now, the interesting thing is that when I, then, in writing the book, took the theme of corporate understanding and tried to read Paul’s letters in that Old Testament perspective, I was surprised to find that there are nine different aspects of the meaning of justification and to be justified. Nine different meanings; and Tom had actually tried to reduce it to one. When I saw these nine meanings, I began to feel very uncomfortable, because I didn’t want to be making claims that were not correct and that, but a few very eminent people have read and said, yes, we think it’s right. So, there is a whole variety of terms, and you have to read the context; you have to hear the echoes; and once you’ve grasped this, the thing which caused me such a concern at the beginning and triggered off all my research, was where Paul says in Romans 6:7, “he that is dead is justified from sin.” And everybody runs around saying, “he can’t be meaning that, because justification is the beginning, not the fruit of union with Christ.” And if you return to that passage, he’s not talking about individual justification; he’s talking about the community that’s had its covenant with Satan brought to an end through the death of Christ, their Redeemer, because he’s died in their place. All that relationship has been severed, and therefore they can marry Christ, as a people, just like Ephesians 5. And so, Christ’s death brought about their justification through their new standing before God. They were not only justified, and their sins forgiven, they could actually marry again, this time to Christ and there is no guilt in it. And that’s the theme that goes on into chapter 8, “Who shall bring any charge against…” And it’s all, again, in the flow of that divine marriage, understanding we are just part of Paschal New Exodus theology. The interesting thing is that Tom in his commentary on Romans does recognize that that latter part of chapter 8 of Romans is throbbing with marital themes, but he doesn’t see how it actually is part of an ongoing theology of the divine marriage and just coming out of Old Testament theology. Again, it’s hung there without any support. A good observation, not supported.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s pursue that a bit. One of the most engaging themes that comes out in your book is the divine marriage theme. How does this theme help us understand Paul’s letters?

Holland:
Well, Paul’s thinking is corporate. As he writes to the churches, he is not speaking about their individual experience unless he calls them out, like fathers and wives and servants and masters, and he’s giving them instruction on behavior, etc.; but generally, it’s about the church and not what God did for them as individuals, but what he did for this people who are now under his care. These people have come into this community, and coming into this community all the promises that are in Christ were given them, individually. It’s like the Old Testament model that God had done massive things in the Exodus for Israel, but the individual Jew must, through their own circumcision, come into this community; and they share in this incredible inheritance that God has given his people. So, it helps you to focus on where union with Christ is situated. It is situated in the death and resurrection of Christ and in his death, Paul says, we shared in that just like we shared in Adam’s guilt in the garden, we share in Christ’s death on the cross. We died with him and we’re raised with him, and it’s not a matter of us having to work our emotions up to feel it or to imagine it; it is just simply a glorious fact that this is what God has done for his people. That gets unpacked in what Paul’s saying, it keeps coming up. For example, in Ephesians where he speaks about where he’s destroyed the middle wall of partition, making himself one new man. Now, that’s the opposite to the term the old man. The old man is unredeemed humanity, at war with itself. Now, through the death of Jesus the middle wall of partition that separated Jew and Gentile has been removed. Those who are believers in Christ come into this new man and there is peace between Jew and Gentile and between humanity in Christ and God. And so, it is seen the level at what Paul is speaking at, which I think more clearly. And, again, it is not a matter… It has to be applied, but what Paul is saying is on the much bigger metanarrative scale. And a lot of the terminology that particularly systematic theologians, but there are also biblical theologians have struggled with, they set so comfortably within this corporate model of redemptive activity of God and Christ.

 

Zaspel:
Can you give us some insight into how you look for connections between the Old and New Testaments? How do you detect themes such as the new exodus theme in Paul?

Holland:
Sometimes it’s easy because Paul’s making it very explicit. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover sacrificed for us therefore let us keep the feast,” and there’s a very clear introduction to it. Going to chapter 10 and exhorts the Corinthians not to behave like Israel in the desert, and he takes that model and warns of it. So, it’s there; but that, really, is the tip of the iceberg; the very vast majority of the iceberg is under the surface. How do you get into that? Well, you keep in mind that Paul is a Jew. There are things that drive his understanding and what they would be would be the Fall, the covenant with Abraham, the Exodus event, and the covenant with David. They are the main themes that would be in any Jewish mind. If you look at the way Paul is developing these major themes, you see that they are going on as well. It’s interesting. If I could give an illustration – I saw a television program on archaeology a couple of months ago that was talking about how drones now facilitate huge discoveries. And an archaeologist said we just used to see these mounds of stone and little clusters all over the desert and we didn’t think that there was any significance in them, but now that we can look down through the camera on a drone we see that these are strategically placed. We also see that between these mounds of stone, there’s clearly under the sand, something which is stopping the sand, being the same color as the rest of the sand. In other words, there is something which is there but would not be recognized but from an aerial photography. You see it particularly, of course, when you’re looking down on the field; you can see where there is a pipe under the field because it turns a different color, but apparently that happens even in the desert. By being high enough and looking down you can see markers that there’s been a wall built under that particular section, joining the mounds together. And that’s led them to realize that these mounds were actually these citadels or turret towers of ancient cities which were huge, and there they’ve been in the desert all these years, for centuries, and nobody’s recognized it, and now excavation is going on at an incredible pace.

The article just was showing how in the Negev Delta they had been looking for evidence of civilization all along the Negev and found very little. Once the drones came in and they began to see on the perimeter of the drones’ camera vision that there were things that were very interesting, when they focused on them, these were the areas where there were towns and cities, and they could see all, let me emphasize again, underneath, coming through the camera…

Now what I’m really trying to say is that in studying New Exodus theology… First of all, I’ve got to recognize, and I don’t think it would be too difficult for people to recognize, Paul uses typology. Clearly in very definite ways in different sections of the book I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not just again in different sections, they are saturated with it. In fact, Paul’s exegetical method is typological. So he looks back into the Old Testament and says that’s what happened with them; this is what’s happening to us. And when you’ve got that in place and you see the quotations which, again, are very important, and not only quotations but allusions. There has been no doubt and scholars will tell you, that such an allusion is not a quotation, but it’s an allusion, yes, we can see it there, and you’re bringing all that material together, you begin to see things happening just like the archaeologists did. That the evidence just begins to fall into place.

 

Zaspel:
We’ve covered a number of areas of emphasis in your book, but before we sign off perhaps you could give us an overview of your book as a whole. What can our readers expect to find?

Holland:
The first chapter is looking at Tom Wright’s assertion that Paul was a zealot, which has been bought into by many, many people, and most biographies of Paul will quote that Paul is a zealot. I look at that, and the case for that is so impossible. For example, a recent French historian of the ancient Roman world points out that if a Roman citizen abandoned their citizenship they would be put to death. How could Paul, as a zealot, maintain his Roman citizenship? Every Roman citizen every five years had to fill in a sort of tax return. Could a zealot do that? He wouldn’t. If he didn’t do it, he would have denied his citizenship and he would of been open to a death sentence. Those are just a few. The book looks at a lot of different things. Would a zealot be commissioned by the hierarchy in Jerusalem to represent them, to go and bring Christians back to Jerusalem? I mean, they’ve lost their mind if they’re going to use a notorious zealot. But if he’s just simply an Orthodox Jew who is concerned about the teaching of Judaism as they are and he’s anxious to bring these back to stand trial, no zealot would do that. A zealot would go with a sword and kill. Paul is acting in a totally legal way when he goes to Damascus; he’s not functioning as a zealot.

So that’s the first chapter. And the significance of that is that Tom Wright goes on to use the information that Paul is supposed to have gained as a zealot and this is where both Jesus and Paul get so many insights, and these insights are woven into the narrative Tom Wright creates. So even Jesus’ understanding of his resurrection, it was because the Maccabean martyrs were willing to die because they believed that they would be rewarded in the resurrection. And you look at the death of the son of God, that’s where Wright says Jesus got his expectation of the resurrection from. He was inspired by the martyrs of the Maccabean period. This is where I’m saying so much is woven into creating the narrative that he’s written and it’s just not been seen, it’s not been recognized. I think if people read what I came across and couldn’t really believe that this was going on without any questioning. But this is going on repeatedly throughout Tom’s writings.

There are many of his arguments that just cannot be sustained without going outside of Scripture, getting material, and bringing it back in. He’s done that particularly with his doctrine of justification. It all relies on a text in the Qumran community caves, there’s 4MQMMT, and that text is very, very dubious, but he brings that in and it controls Paul’s understanding of justification and he abandons the Reformers’ understanding of justification because of this text in Qumran. So, it’s that narrative that he’s constructed, a narrative that I would argue is just simply bad methodology.

 

Zaspel:
And the rest of the book?

Holland:
In the rest of the book, I look at how Jesus’ self-understanding possibly developed. Again, going back to the firstborn theme and Luke is very clear and that the baby Jesus wasn’t redeemed. Nothing was paid for him. The point is that if he’s not redeemed, he’s not Mary and Joseph’s, he is the Lord’s and so when Jesus is approached, “Your mother and your brothers are outside,” he says, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” In other words, I don’t have the normal relationship with them; they’re not my responsibility to obey because I belong to somebody else. Jesus was fully conscious of his death. It’s in light of the fact that he knows he is the Redeemer figure. Looking at the Son of Man material in the Gospels, and outside of the Gospels there are few references to Son of Man, not calling Jesus the Son of Man but liking him to the Son of Man, but they have very strong priestly themes. So, the priestly theme, I’ve argued, is not just in Hebrews and in Revelation, but it’s right through the Gospels and right though the epistles. And it’s a priestly theme, the priestly King who has come to redeem his bride. And this goes all back into the Old Testament theology of David, the priestly King and marrying a bride and this is, of course, typological of Christ. So that’s an aspect of Christology.

Jesus, knowing that his death would bring about the promised new creation that Isaiah had predicted, he knew that his death had a significance far greater than any martyr’s death. And he even anticipates that there would be the renewal of all things. There’s just an insight into his thinking that his death is far, far more significant than anything that most theologians have picked up on. Paul picks up on it, of course, but Paul is not creating a new theology; Paul is expanding upon the theology he has received from the disciples who received it from Jesus. And they’re reading the Old Testament in the same way that Jesus read it and he went back and said, “What do the Scriptures say?” when he was answering questions. That’s what the early church were doing; they were doing good, Old Testament, biblical reflection. They were doing their own biblical theology.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Tom Holland, author of the brand new book, Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation. It’s an excellent, thoroughly informed, and very much needed work. We are featuring it in Review here on Books At a Glance also, and we encourage you to give that a read as well.

Tom, thanks so much for your work and for talking to us today.

Holland:
My pleasure; thank you for having me.

Buy the books

Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation

Apiary Publishing, 2017 | 200 pages